Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Object: Urim and Thummim (2007)

This was an interesting documentary that played at the Silent Theater a couple of weeks ago. Basically, it's the story of Todd Walker, a down-on-his-luck Kentuckian who strolled into a Goodwill one day, bought an odd-looking object that struck his eye for $0.69, went home, stared at it for a few hours (like you do) and realized that he was having visions of demons and pyramids and whatnot. A little research later, and Mr. Walker is convinced that he's the new owner of the Urim and Thummim, Biblical artifacts associated with wisdom and divination (and which the Mormon church also claims were used by Joseph Smith to write the Book of Mormon).

In the film Walker proceeds to explain how he's shown the object to various friends and local acquaintances and that several of them have experienced visions as well, and he proceeds to bring the item to a number of local scientists and religious scholars, even though he's aware that the whole idea makes him sound like a lunatic.

The strongest sense that you get from watching The Object is that Todd Walker is utterly sincere: he believes that he's in possession of a holy relic, no doubt about it. The odd thing is, now that Walker is in possession of this item, he doesn't really seem to know what to do with it. One would expect someone experiencing visions to have some kind of goal or endgame in mind - after all, that's what happened with Moses, St. Paul, Constantine, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, and Mary Baker Eddy: have a vision, found a movement, instigate social or political change. But Todd Walker seems baffled by his own visions, uncertain of anything beyond their basic existence. (Which suggests to me that you need to have two things if you want to start a religion: visions from on high, and a goal-oriented Type A personality - who knows how many messages from God have foundered because their recipients were befuddled by them?)

As for the object itself, which basically looks like a sort of squashed incense burner, it's just old and mysterious-looking enough that I can see why one might jump to conclusions about it, even though it doesn't seem to fit the requirements to be the Biblical Urim and Thummim (it's just one item, for starters, not two). Walker keeps it in a bag near him at all times, apparently, and a showing was arranged for after the Silent Theater's screening but I didn't go to take a look at it - there didn't seem to be much need, especially after Walker and his friends insisted that most visions didn't come until hours of peering into its depths.

As a story, The Object is fascinating. As a film, it made me wonder what Werner Herzog or (even better) Errol Morris could have done with the subject matter. Co-director Jacob Young said he has a motto for his filmmaking: "Make a friend, then make a film." That sounds like good advice for getting through life as a filmmaker in a smooth, uncontroversial manner, but it also sounds like a good way to make films that never investigate deeply - I imagine Errol Morris, with his detached, Interrotron-eye view of the world, doesn't make a lot of friends with his subjects, but he has made a handful of masterpieces. Either way, I applaud the filmmakers of The Object for bringing this unusual, very American story to light, and with a refusal to mock or condescend to their subject.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Uninvited (1988) Trailer

Okay, bear with me - today is the birthday of character actor Clu Gulager, who I don't actually know, but have seen many times at the New Beverly Theater where he's a regular. He seems to be a great guy, and he was in a lot of movies, of which this - Uninvited - is perhaps my favorite. It's about a genetically engineered cat that, when angry, launches another, smaller, evil radioactive cat out of its mouth that proceeds to kill people. So this blog posting is in honor of him.

And yeah, I intend to have some real content up here again soon.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday the 13th Part 2 Trailer

If I had been born about ten or fifteen years earlier, I'd probably hate the entire Friday the 13th series as much as I hate the Saw series - a bunch of pointlessly identical misanthropic cash cows. But since I've only seen them all on home video with a respectable distance, they're basically all '80s kitsch, which means that I kind of like some of them - and I like Part 2 the best of all. Happy Friday.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

This one is going to split viewers - or at least, the small number of viewers who get to see it since it's basically been dumped by the studio.

In each of his three movies, Jared Hess has walked the fine line between making fun of his oddball characters (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre) and empathizing with them and their unusual plights. Many have seen these movies as essentially mean-spirited and exploitative, making fun of these weirdos. Personally, I see Hess as being on the side of the dreamers and outcasts, but also recognizing that comedy comes from pain, and the most acute pain comes from social ostracism. And in each of his movies, Hess has balanced the pain with triumph - Napoleon wows his high schoolmates with his dance performance, Nacho wins the wrestling match, and in this movie Benjamin Purvis finds a way to make his loved ones' dreams come true. These are sweet, gentle-hearted movies that also happen to have a piercing eye for the absurd and aren't afraid of the occasional poop joke.

Anyway, Gentlemen Broncos, which sounds like it could involve gay cowboys eating pudding, is the story of Ben Purvis, a teenage sci-fi writer whose dreams run into two obstacles - absurdly pompous author Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement, featuring the greatest accent on Earth) and a pair of low-budget teenage filmmakers who bastardize Ben's already bizarre story, which involves genital hazards and flying deer that fire missiles and yeast - it's all a bit hard to describe. Suffice to say that for me, Gentlemen Broncos was delightful, and if you don't want to see Sam Rockwell launching himself into the sky through the power of flatulence or Jemaine Clement ponderously explaining how sci-fi names can always be improved through the addition of '-onious' or '-anous', then I don't know what else to tell you. And Mike White as a longhaired creep with an ill snake? And Halley Feiffer getting a hand massage with too much lotion? Freakazoid bliss.

Hess's visual style has been compared to that of Wes Anderson, with an emphasis on centered framings and odd tangential details, but I realized in this movie that the two filmmakers are interested in radically different themes - Hess focusses on people in marginalized, out-of-the-way places, whereas Anderson focusses on people in the most chic and stylish places (who nonetheless are broken and lonely as well). And don't get me wrong, I love Anderson's films, but I absolutely find a huge amount of value in Jared Hess's resolutely anti-glamorous films as well.


Monday, November 02, 2009

Offerings (1989)

Sometimes it's the little things that stick out in a movie. Offerings is a pretty undistinguished Halloween ripoff from 1989 (way to jump on that slasher bandwagon in a timely way, guys!) and made in Oklahoma. It slavishly follows the Halloween template - weird kid gets locked up, comes back years later to kill a batch of teenagers, there's an expert who tries to track him down, etc. This killer, John Radley, leaves the occasional gift for the final girl, who was his only friend back when he was just a weird kid - an ear on the porch, a nose in a newspaper, and so on. One night all of the teens are watching TV and waiting for a pizza, and when the pizza finally arrives, it's just sitting on the front porch with no deliveryman in sight, and it's not just cheese like they ordered - both pizzas are now sausage pizzas - OR ARE THEY? As one teen says, "It doesn't taste like sausage but it's good."

Of course, later on the sheriff analyzes the pizza (?) and the lab results come back and the kids were all eating human sausage, reinforcing the horror-movie trope that when people eat human flesh and don't know it, it's DELICIOUS.

But here's the thing - I can understand how a killer could carve a fillet or a rough steak out of a human victim, maybe even grind up the meat into human hamburger. But sausage? So John Radley killed somebody, butchered some meat off their body, ground it up, seasoned it, filled it into a casing, cooked it, and then waited around for the teens to order a pizza for his savory cannibalistic topping? It's a weird little detail that obviously none of the filmmakers thought about very hard, and this scenario I invented is actually more amusing than the movie itself - but I wouldn't have invented this scenario without watching Offerings, so thanks to the filmmakers for that.